As one who has written op-eds for almost three decades, having transitioned from print to online publication, I have witnessed a major change in reader comment tone.
As print publications commonly share a reader’s identity and online publications do not, commenters able to hide behind anonymity feel empowered to make vile remarks. Unlike political candidates’ ads acknowledging they approved of the content, anonymous commenters escape all accountability.
Opinion writers seek to stimulate debate on issues, providing food for thought for both reader and writer. Whenever needed, opinion writers cite authority for their assertions – using links, such as those herein, for online publications. Commenters need not do so, leaving them to make unsupportable claims – sometimes launching into personal attacks against opinion writers.
This author has been personally attacked by the best of those uninterested in a rational debate, learning the extreme to which such readers will go only after writing a 2008 op-ed.
As my son prepared to go to Iraq for the first time, serving as a Navy bomb technician – a specialty suffering the highest casualty rate – I wrote a non-political piece titled “A Son Goes Off to War.” It simply expressed a father’s concerns over sending a son to war. Despite my own combat service and that of every other male member of my family, including earlier generations going back to the American Revolution, for me, the thought of remaining safely home while a son went off to war was a difficult adjustment.
Three-fourths of comments received were negative, calling me every possible name for allowing a son to so serve. But when one reader, obviously suffering from severe anger issues, commented he hoped my son came home in a body bag, the line of unacceptable discourse was clearly crossed.
It was inconceivable to me any rational person could make such an irresponsible comment. As was my intention beforehand, I prayed every day for my son’s safe return during his two deployments. He did return safely, receiving the Bronze Star for lives saved by disarming dozens of IEDs. To this day, I continue to pray for all those still serving in harm’s way.
I must admit, however, that that single commenter’s attack shook me to the core – until receiving one of the few positive comments posted.
In my op-ed, I had mentioned my son – also a U.S. Navy diver – in 2006 had been part of a team that located the USS Lagarto – a submarine sunk off the coast of Thailand by the Japanese during World War II. Determining it was still intact – its crewmembers remaining entombed within – the dive team attached a plaque to Lagarto’s aft capstan. It read, “In Memory of the Fighting Men of USS Lagarto (SS-371) From the Men of the USS Salvor (ARS-52) 16 June 2006.” A generation of warriors, born decades after Lagarto’s demise, commemorated an earlier generation’s eternal patrol.
My reference to Lagarto triggered a posting from a woman thanking my son for his service to country and role in Lagarto’s commemoration – explaining her father was among those remaining entombed within the submarine. It brought her peace of mind knowing Lagarto’s entire crew was still together.
For the author, this single positive comment offset the many negatives.
As a frequent opinion writer, I continue to be on the receiving end of arrows of criticism for expressing thoughts on foreign policy and national security issues not embraced by others, some including death wishes for me. While some such people may simply be foreign-based trolls seeking to influence U.S. policy, others, disturbingly, must be recognized as fellow citizens.
Whether it is my advancing age or a hardened exterior matured by years of dismissing flaming arrows of personal criticism, I tend to dismiss such people as intellectual lightweights unwilling to, or incapable of, contributing to the debate. Comments recently received after I wrote about the dangers of leaving Syria included such intellectual flamers as the author is “a dumb piece of cat dung,” or, having only attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, lacks strategic insight, or must own defense company stocks, or, if willing to send others off to war, should go himself (at twice the maximum age limit now, I would have to be assigned to a very slow moving infantry unit), etc.
But what is most frustrating as an opinion writer is failing to generate the desired rational discussion. All commentators spend a great deal of time researching the subjects about which they write in hopes of generating rational and responsible debate from which all might gain. The author will admit at times responsible opposing comments have given him pause to reflect on same. Sadly, however, these are few and far between as most critics prefer the personal attack approach.
In Alexandra Hudson’s recent, favorable review of Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal,” she credits him with an important observation: We have lost our love of community and family. Today, although “more connected digitally than ever before, we find ourselves further apart” as “we are more addicted, and spend more time on the ‘thin’ relationships on social media than ‘thick’ relationships face-to-face.” This negatively impacts on the “collective American soul,” unsurprisingly resulting in social media discussions reflecting “fracture and discontentment.”
Sasse’s book shares an anecdote supporting his theme about the deadliest heat wave in American history, occurring in Chicago in 1995, claiming 739 lives in a single week. The staggering death toll was attributed to a lack of community as people neglected to check on each other.
Accordingly, this author challenges angry commenters to offer substantive comments on issues raised, i.e., comments that spawn “insightfulness” rather than “incitefulness.” The former generates an educational opportunity from which all can benefit in a spirit of community, while the latter only helps eat away at the heart of the American soul.
For angry readers lacking insightful intellect, it undoubtedly will be incitefulness as usual. For others, the choice is theirs.